The Importance of Australia, 1941

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Australia is, today, a vital ally of the United States.  As the Department of State’s February 2017 factsheet on relations with Australia notes, the relationship is “underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests, and cultural affinities.”  Even though the United States and Australia established bilateral diplomatic relations in January 1940, much of that relationship stems from the period after the United States entered World War II subsequent to Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

U.S. and Australian forces fought side-by-side during the war and Australia became a major base for U.S. forces.  Despite ups and downs in the relationship, during World War II the United States supplanted Great Britain as Australia’s military protector.[1]  The relationship was further cemented during the Cold War.  In 1951, the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS Treaty) established the foundation of defense and security cooperation between the U.S. and Australia.

Even before the changes in the U.S.-Australian relationship brought about by World War II and the Cold War, there was an American recognition of Australia’s important strategic position vis-a-vis the United States as well as the political commonalities.  These are summed up in the following memorandum prepared in a branch of the Coordinator of Information (COI) six days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Estelle Frankfurter to Nelson Poynter, Memorandum on Australia, December 1, 1941, file “Arabia, Australia & Australian Conference,” Entry NC-148-353A: Records of the Special Assistant (NAID 1013120), RG 208: Records of the Office of War Information.
Map showing the relative position of Australia and the “Eastern World”

Some of the records in this entry, including this memorandum, originated in the Foreign Information Service (FIS) of the Coordinator of Information (COI).  In June 1942, the function and many records of that organization were transferred to the new Office of War Information (OWI) when that agency was established while the other parts of the COI became the core of the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Estelle Frankfurter was the sister of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Unstated in this memorandum but clear from other sources of the time is the importance of a “white” Australia in a “yellow” and “brown” part of the world.

[1] For a study that situates Australia in the larger context of World War II see Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War against Japan, 1941-1945.